Downton Abbey and the Disabled Servicemen of the First World War

by Beth Wyatt

A decade ago this year, ITV’s aristocratic period drama Downton Abbey returned for its second season. Following on in theme from the dramatic conclusion of the first series – which saw Lord Grantham announce the outbreak of war to his family, domestic staff, and garden party guests – these episodes depicted the First World War through the eyes of the stately home’s assorted inhabitants. Opening with a scene representing the 1916 Battle of the Somme, the series explored the impact of the conflict on its male and female characters, focusing on the British home front but incorporating several scenes portraying the Western Front. Through its numerous representations of how men’s minds and bodies were affected by their war service, Downton operates as an intriguing case study for historians interested in the influence of modern understandings of the First World War on period drama and cinema.  

While the show examines the war lives of doctors, nurses, and civilians, it mainly focuses on wounded and disabled soldiers. It navigates the experiences of men affected mentally by the conflict and those with physical injuries, representing almost all of them as ‘broken men’. In this way, Downton is undoubtedly influenced by the idea of the ‘soldier-victim’ – which narrates that the First World War’s combatants were inherently damaged by their war service. This discourse has shaped British public memory of the conflict, despite the evidence that not all British soldiers were traumatised by their experiences, while some enjoyed the acts of fighting and killing.

Two disabled soldiers at No. 4 London General Hospital. © IWM(Q 27815).

A character who embodies both the soldier-victim and the disillusionment narrative prominent in some interwar literature is Henry Lang, Lord Grantham’s new valet. Henry – superbly played by Cal MacAninch – is traumatised by his war service and struggles with his work. He exhibits symptoms of war neuroses, or ‘shell shock’, experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety. When Grantham states it is “perfectly honourable” he was invalided out, Henry asks, “Is it? I know people look at me and wonder why I’m not in uniform.” Moreover, the ex-serviceman expresses anti-war views, with this dual portrayal of neuroses and disillusionment suggestive of the cultural influence of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Eventually Henry resigns, ending the narrative of one of the season’s most compelling characters.

Fan favourite Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) initially displays attributes of the ‘soldier-hero’ – a Victorian ideal of martial masculinity which remained influential. Matthew is composed, courageous, often good-humoured. But his narrative changes when he is injured in action in 1918, paralysed from the waist down. Matthew – Downton’s heir – is told his injuries are permanent and he will never be able to walk again, or have children. He sends his fiancée Lavinia Swire away, and remarks to Lady Mary Crawley: “No one sane would want to be with me as I am now”. Yet, two episodes later, Matthew can walk again, this development dubiously explained away by his doctor’s misdiagnosis of Matthew’s spinal bruising as a permanent injury.

Convalescent servicemen playing cards at Hilders Hospital in Haslemere, January 1915-March 1919. © IWM (Q 108080)

Also problematic is the plot concerning Major Patrick Gordon (Trevor White), a Canadian ex-serviceman who claims he is Patrick Crawley, the estate’s previous heir, presumed to have died on the Titanic. To facilitate a narrative whereby the family cannot identify him, Patrick has severe facial injuries. While Mary’s sister Edith believes him, her family do not and they disturbingly equate his injuries with a loss of morality and masculinity. When asked if he is like Patrick to look at, Mary cruelly says: “He isn’t like anything to look at.” While the Dowager Countess remarks: “[…] when his face was blown away he decided every cloud has a silver lining.” Patrick leaves Downton with the viewer in doubt as to his true identity, but the implication is he is a fraud.

Downton’s inclusion of war disabled characters reflects the fact that over 750,000 British soldiers returned permanently disabled. But they are given little agency and at times subject to problematic plots. While other characters are also grounded in the soldier-victim narrative – footman William Mason is killed; fellow footman Thomas Barrow inflicts a ‘Blighty’ wound on himself to escape the front; cook Beryl Patmore’s nephew is shot for cowardice. In this way, Downton’s second series is more reflective of modern-day conceptualisations of the First World War than its realities.

First World War wounded soldiers holding the Union Jack flag, 1914/1918. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Recommended Reading:

Jessica Meyer, Matthew’s Legs and Thomas’s Hand: Watching Downton Abbey as a First World War Historian, Journal of British Cinema and Television (2019)

Claire O’Callaghan, Pride Versus Prejudice: Wounded Men, Masculinity and Disability in Downton Abbey, Conflicting Masculinities: Men in Television Period Drama (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1919-39 (University of California Press, 2001)


About the Author:

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Beth is a cultural historian and heritage professional. She is primarily interested in social and cultural histories of modern Britain and Germany, encompassing themes such as war, gender, the environment, and period drama and cinema. She recently completed Birkbeck, University of London’s Historical Research MA programme, writing her dissertation on First World War landscapes.

 

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